On our blog we often discuss the challenges of being a product manager. One recurring theme is that although you are ultimately responsible for the success or failure of your products, you often do not have organizational authority over anyone.

It’s a conundrum: Your job is to develop a consensus and execute your product’s strategic plan without the authority to tell anyone what to do. You need to bring together development, marketing, sales, and even your executives to make that plan a reality. This is why we frequently make the case that successful product management is largely a function of leadership — not management (at least in the sense of ordering and supervising). It’s also why my team here at ProductPlan has written several posts, like this one, about the need for product managers to learn how to think strategically, communicate persuasively, evangelize for their products, and develop other important soft skills.

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“Product management is largely a function of leadership — not management.”

But what happens when the product management challenge you face is that you have poor strategic direction to begin with?

In other words, what if you’re simply handed an ever-changing strategy and given responsibility for turning it into a successful product? Worse, what if you know that the product strategy is flawed or poorly conceived?

This happens all too often. And it happened to a product manager who attended a recent webinar on thought leadership that I presented for Pragmatic Marketing. I’ve reproduced a portion of the message here. Then I’ll summarize the advice I gave him, because I think it could prove useful for you, if you ever find yourself in a similar situation.

Hi Jim,

I have a question about working with a poor product strategy for a just launched product. Our ex-CXO developed the product strategy. Since his departure, the executive team doesn’t have the resources or energy to fix the problems he left, and I find it difficult to push out the releases and spend time on defining a new product strategy. Unsurprisingly, there has been weak adoption of the product by the market and few new users.

How do you deal with being handed a poor product strategy where the targeted customer segment isn’t clear, not enough time was spent learning about the potential users, and your executives don’t want to stop product development and do customer development in order to hone in on a specific segment, learn more about pain points and get super clear of value add?

How You Can Get Stuck with a Poor Product Strategy

poor product strategy

As I told this attendee, this is an excellent question, because it summarizes so many of the challenges product managers and product owners face when their company’s ideas and assumptions don’t match reality.

Here are the challenges — every one of them a common problem, facing many companies, particularly startups — that I spotted in his question.

Software companies want to deliver new features.

This is understandable, because it shows progress. It’s also an easy metric to focus on and can feel like an easy win. “Look! We’re releasing new features to the market!”

The more important question, though, is whether any of these new features will move the needle for the company in terms of user adoption, opening new markets, customer delight, and positive public reviews.

Executives work on assumptions — not always grounded in fact.

Another common product management challenge, clearly evident from this attendee’s message, is that often a startup’s executive team will be working off of their own assumptions about their market, their product, their competitors and their target customers.

This, too, is understandable. After all, the executives were responsible for getting the company off the ground, and as a result they have probably developed a bias in favor of their own opinions.

At the attendee’s company, the previous product lead was clearly operating on his own assumptions. But as the product release revealed, he likely didn’t subject those assumptions to testing and verification before building them into his strategy.

Growing companies often feel the need to keep their developers busy.

The note in this message about the executive team not wanting to stop product development to focus on strategy highlights another common product management challenge. Often a management team or a company’s investor will equate a development team being busy — being “productive” — with the company making progress.

Again, that’s understandable from the standpoint that the company is paying for development resources, and the perception is that those resources will be sitting idle while the product team interviews customers, studies the market and conducts other “fuzzy” tasks. It certainly isn’t as easy to measure as hammering out code.

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“Focusing on strategy is far more valuable than just keeping the dev team busy.”

But as smart product owners like this attendee understand, focusing on strategy is far more valuable than keeping a development team busy on the wrong things.

Product owners can become information silos.

One final problem that this attendee’s message highlighted is that often a company’s product owner — whether a product manager, VP, or founder — can become the organization’s perceived source of knowledge about the product, market, competitive landscape and customer personas.

This is obviously a danger. If the rest of the product team has little to no input in developing the product strategy, the departure of one key individual can leave the company struggling to figure out all of the learnings and input that went into building that strategy.

The good news, as I told this attendee, is that a product owner can indeed improve upon a flawed or poorly conceived product strategy. Here are the suggestions I offered to him.

How to Fix a Poor Product Strategy

fix bad product strategy

1. Assign a product owner (or team) to drive the strategy.

One key component to creating a viable product strategy is to assign a responsible person or team to the task. In other words, developing the product strategy needs to be a clearly defined role in the company.

If it becomes an informal, widely distributed task that everyone has a hand in crafting, your product strategy likely will be watered down.

Ideally, this will be a product manager, as I suggested to the attendee. But it could also be another product owner or even a small dedicated group of product team members.

2. The product strategist must then bring evidence supporting these strategic initiatives.

If you want to improve a weak product strategy, you must first identify a few of the major strategic initiatives that will support your vision. These initiatives should emerge after working closely with customers (end users, economic buyers at your customers’ organizations, etc.) to determine the problems they’re facing and how your product can solve those problems.

From there, you will be able to present real evidence to your stakeholders that these strategic initiatives support solutions that your customers need and are willing to pay for.

This means shifting the focus of your efforts from developing more product features to performing customer development — getting out there and talking with a cross-section of your customers and potential customers. What I suggested to my attendee, and what I’d also invite your team to do, would be to spend time on the road visiting with customers to identify the ideal segment, and to settle on a few of the most compelling problems to solve for that segment.

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“Handed a poor product strategy? Shift the focus back to customer development.”

A related part of your research here, of course, would be to validate that your target customers would be willing to buy your solution if it were to solve these major problems for their companies.

3. The product strategist should get company buy-in to shift focus temporarily from project management to crafting the new strategy.

Through customer development you can prioritize your strategic initiatives. You can use a variety of methods to prioritize before developing your visual product roadmap. This roadmap will serve as your high-level blueprint for implementing your product strategy.

You and your team will need to step back temporarily from a focus on your backlog. Instead, you will need to focus on customer problems, describing how your product will help solve those problems, and putting this into a strategic plan.

As part of this process, you will need to communicate this plan to your executive team to earn their buy-in.

If you work at a smaller company you might also need to offload some of your day-to-day project management responsibilities so that you can focus on strategy. This might be more challenging, and you might receive pushback.

But if you’re going to avoid the problem my attendee faced — releasing an unsuccessful product because you were forced to work from a poor strategy — it will be worth convincing your stakeholders to give you this strategy time. It will pay big dividends on release day and beyond.


Have other ideas for handling a flawed product strategy? Please share them with us in the comments section.

Post Comments

9 Comments

  • Freddie
    October 18, 2016 at 5:39 am

    Great Content here! but completely unshareable with the stakeholders you need to get buy in from? Could be better with an updated title!

  • John McMahon
    October 18, 2016 at 1:46 pm

    Hi Jim,

    This is an awesome writeup. It explains my situation well. 😉

    Given it might be hard to setup customer interviews for a new user type, what methods have you found to be successful when scheduling interviews? I’ve thought about reaching out on LinkedIn and possibly incentivizing them.

    Also, how do you know if their problems are high enough priority that they’re willing to buy the product? With people sometimes saying and doing different things, I want to make sure their input has a better chance of leading to a well selling product.

    Thanks again!
    John

    • Jim Semick
      October 20, 2016 at 2:31 pm

      Hi John,
      Great question on engaging prospective customers. I’ve found LinkedIn to be effective (the Premium version lets you send InMail). Simply contacting them by email or phone is effective if you are proposing to solve a problem that’s big enough on their priority list. In my experience if you can get 25% of the people to schedule time with you, you are doing well.

      In general, I don’t incentivize people for customer interviews, as I want them to not be biased. However, I will often follow up with a small gift for their time, such as a Starbucks or Amazon gift card.

      Regarding how you know if their problems are a high enough priority… that’s where the problem discovery calls come into play. It’s important to drill down to understand how their life will be different if they solved a particular problem. Have them envision that they’ve solved a particular problem. Would it mean more revenue for them? Saved time? If so, how much money, or how much time? If you can find common patterns with different customers you know you are on the right track.

      Best of luck!
      Jim

  • Sudheer
    October 18, 2016 at 9:20 pm

    Very good suggestions. If possible, can you also throw some light on how to go about customer development when the product is B2B, new, not many customers to get the feedback from?

    • Jim Semick
      October 20, 2016 at 2:35 pm

      Hi Sudheer,
      Thanks for your comment. I’ve done customer development for several new B2B products and I know well the challenges. My first thought – think of customer development like sales. Where would you find qualified prospects for your proposed product? Then begin a campaign to schedule a call with 10-15 of those prospects. I like using LinkedIn, and tapping into my own network to discover prospects.

      The initial calls should be focused on understanding their problems rather than pitching your proposed product. After you’ve identified the common problems, you can then move into more product/solution discussions. Oh, and make sure you’re talking with the economic buyer rather than simply users of the product (users are important of course, but the primary question you’re trying to answer is whether someone is willing to pay to solve the problem).
      Good luck!
      Jim

  • Arvind
    October 19, 2016 at 12:33 pm

    Well, its an opportunity to fill in as I see it. Product Management is about envisionage on how well one knows the pulse of immensely growing demands and a balancing act on can vs must deliver. So take your chance and mind the cost factor as everything one thinks given individual approach jusr cany be materialized.

  • Dan Griffiths
    October 20, 2016 at 2:04 am

    No company wants to follow a bad strategy. Your challenge here is to be brave – name the problem and bring others round to where the flaws lie and (crucially, or you’ll look like a naysayer) how you’d propose fixing them. Back to basics: start with market and customer problems and build from there. Ideally there may be some early wins that can be worked on short term and provide some evidence of progress.

  • Michael C’deBaca
    October 24, 2016 at 8:54 pm

    Great article! At the risk of repeating some if the good insight, here’s how I think about it…if consumption is down or not growing as fast as expected, sales are being lost to competitors, and you’re pretty sure it’s not positioning or pricing, then you need to ask if what you’re selling is solving a worthy pain. We know people generally buy to relieve pain rather than to have a better life/day, I use PIQCLL (like pickle) to gauge the pain. Here’s how it works: when doing customer development, find their Pain and seek to understand its Importance. Quantify it (people, time, money). What are the Consequences of not solving it? Look/Listen for other opportunities to be the rescue to their pain. PIQCLL – Pain, Importance, Quantify, Consequences, Look/Listen. Then as has been said before, note the trends and patterns. This will lead to your new value prop and ultimately new product features.

  • Gary Baker
    November 1, 2016 at 1:07 am

    “They’re toast”, was Eric Ries’ response after I presented a similar scenario to him five years ago regarding a startup I was brought in to advise (too late, regrettably) that was on a similar trajectory; customer development was never conducted, the product was a few weeks from being released and funds were running low.

    He predicted accurately.

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